Past year a success, with one blazing hiccup

Success can be measured in many different ways, yet by all accounts, 2015 for Ponoka County can definitely be classified as such.

Success can be measured in many different ways, yet by all accounts, 2015 for Ponoka County can definitely be classified as such.

In a year-end interview held ironically on the last day of the year (Thursday, Dec. 31), Reeve Paul McLauchlin stated the past 12 months were pretty successful for Ponoka County.

“There were no significant changes for us, so I would say it’s been a successful year,” he said.

“In the west county, the completion of Iola Road was a big project that was done on time and under budget. As well, one of the indicators (of a good year) for us is the number of drilling permits and those remained fairly steady despite the downward trend on prices.”

McLauchlin credits much of the continued success to the county’s staff and administration as well as the way they work well with council.

“The real strength of the county’s success is in our administration and the staff,” stated McLauchlin, adding the county recently recognized four employees for their 40 years of service.

“You don’t see (40 year employees) much anywhere any more. That certainly speaks to the consistency of why the county remains successful in what it does. I also think this is a credit to all of the staff who work great together, and with council, who respect their efforts and ensure that everyone is working as a team toward the common good.”

He added that Ponoka County council seems to be one of the few political anomalies in the province, since they seem to be able to arrive at a consensus on nearly all issues.

“I think that ability (to build consensus) is one of the reasons our employees hang around this long. I also feel lucky to be on a council that is always close to being on the same page the majority of the time,” explained McLauchlin.

“Sometimes it takes time to build that in a council, but even this relatively new council seems to have done that very quickly. We all live with the decisions that are made, regardless of any minor disagreements. Those get left behind and we move on. Everyone seems to work great with each other and take pride in their work.”

Even a change at the provincial government level didn’t create any trouble for the county. In fact, McLauchlin feels the county is more secure with the NDP in power.

“Not much changed with us when the new government came in. Going forward, it’s looking good and seems to be providing more certainty in terms of funding. Even with PC government there was a lot more uncertainty with the way changes were made, given the number of different leaders in recent times,” he stated.

The only hiccup, bump or crater depending on who you talk to the county experienced last year and will continue to deal with early in 2016 is the move toward regional fire protection.

The situation has been well documented and could soon come to a head-on collision, when the Town of Ponoka meets next week after the county set a Jan. 15 deadline to know what direction the town will be taking so the county can start to purchase equipment to set up a new department if the town won’t be joining the regional model.

“We are one of the last few places in Alberta to institute this regionalized fire protection service model, so we are not inventing something new here,” McLauchlin explained.

“I respect the fact that perception is reality, and I respect that the town has the authority to deal with things in their own fashion.

“We were somewhat apprehensive about this, too when we started. Though, I expect either way this goes, (Ponoka County) residents will have a top notch service.”

When the process began last May, with the county tendering notice it planned to terminate the current agreement with the town and set up the new regional service, McLauchlin like many others on council and at the county believed the situation wouldn’t extend as long as it has.

“I didn’t anticipate this issue going for this long,” he said.

“We have had a good relationship with the town and will continue to collaborate and work together on things regardless. We will also work with the town on whatever they determine.

“Clearly it has been hard and a struggle on both sides, but the county and town are going to do what they perceive is the best thing going forward for their residents. As a county, we will always be open to the town, but right now we simply would just like to move on and get things done one way or the other.”

As for 2016, McLauchlin knows the county is likely to expect some challenges given the continuing economic struggles of the resource sector, which provides 60 per cent of the county’s tax revenue. Despite that, however, he still feels the county will be able to continue to provide all of the services residents expect to see.

“The coming year could be tough. It’s been a long time since companies have come to us to set up (tax) payment plans,” he stated.

“Will we see any changes? I’m not sure, but we will work with them, recognizing the economic situation and climate. At the county, though, I’m not worried, as we have been fiscally responsible for many years. I’m fairly certain that we will be able to maintain our current service levels.”

That said, McLauchlin noted there could be changes on what they county does with its capital spending primarily with its road construction and upgrading projects in the new year.

“For the most part, administration and staff have been able to keep our previous projects at or under budget,” he said.

“I’m not going to promise that taxes won’t go up or that there will be no mill rate increase, but I am cautiously optimistic and we will be compassionate with our taxpayers when time comes to deal with that issue.”

The one positive McLauchlin does see is the NDP’s reversal of the previous government’s decision to cut funding for bridge work. That could mean about $1 million more in unexpected construction funds for the county, pending further details being sent out. However, that change also gives McLauchlin more optimism the NDP might be leaning toward handing out more money for roads.

“I expect council will move ahead on projects like Menaik Road and some other large road upgrades,” he said.

“We have 7,500 kilometres of roads and lots of demands and people asking when will they be next. With us now nearing the end of our 10-year plan, it will give us a good look at our overall road program and I am looking forward to developing that long term planning for roads and other capital projects. It’s important for us, staff and the public to know what is coming up.

“Overall, I think we are in a good spot. I don’t believe we are going to stop doing anything we are doing now and we shouldn’t stop building or working just because we are in a down market. I believe we need to keep going forward.”